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Electoral reform efforts off to a shaky start

The federal Liberals' promise to scrap Canada's existing, first-past-the-post electoral system and replace it with something shiny and new before the next election is no light undertaking.

The federal Liberals’ promise to scrap Canada’s existing, first-past-the-post electoral system and replace it with something shiny and new before the next election is no light undertaking. There are few laws as important in a democracy than the ones used to draw our electoral map and to determine how votes are counted.

So it’s underwhelming to see how half-assed the Liberals have been on this file to date. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised that electoral reform legislation will be tabled within 18 months of his government coming to power. We’re now one-third of the way through that timeline, and the Liberals have only just gotten around to forming a committee charged with examining the subject.

The slug-like speed with which the Liberals have approached this subject have led some to worry it’s all part of a deliberate ploy to run out the clock. After all, Trudeau has indicated before that his own personal preference is for Canada to switch to a system of ranked ballots, which would allow voters to indicate the order in which they prefer candidates. If your first pick doesn’t receive a majority of votes, then your ballot is reallocated to your second pick, and so on.

This has the benefit of allowing citizens to vote their consciences with their first picks, then plug their noses and support safer bets with their second choices. Unsurprisingly, this system is also expected to further benefit the Liberals, which, as the party that straddles the political centre, would likely win more runner-up votes than their rivals.

The NDP and Greens, meanwhile, have long called for some form of proportional representation, which would ensure that each party enjoyed a share of seats in the House of Commons roughly in line with their slice of the popular vote. But to make that happen you’d probably end up redrawing Canada’s electoral map, perhaps creating bigger ridings occupied by several MPs. Sorting out how this would work would take time - time that the Liberals have been squandering.

The Conservatives, who seem opposed to any changes to our existing system, are adamant that any electoral reform plan should be put to a national referendum. Scott Reid, the Conservatives’ point man on the file, suspects the Liberals are ragging the puck just long enough to rule out both riding redistribution or a referendum, but leaving enough time to enact the changes they have favoured all along.

At least the Liberals made a concession this week on the composition of the newly formed committee to study electoral reform. Until yesterday, the Liberals had insisted the committee should be based on each party’s share of seats in the Commons, giving the Liberals a majority of the votes. They faced a pounding on this from the NDP, who were quick to note that the Liberals won less than 40 per cent of the popular vote in the last election.

Eventually the Liberals caved, and agreed to a committee composition that more closely reflects the popular vote. That means the Liberals no longer enjoy majority rule on the committee, and will need to find support from at least some of the other parties.

If this Liberal concession seems high-minded, it’s because memories remain fresh of how Stephen Harper’s Conservatives would typically refuse to give an inch during their majority reign. But that doesn’t mean there’s no gamesmanship involved. David Artemiw, a recovering political advisor, observed on Twitter that the Liberal climb-down resembles a tactic often deployed by Gerald Butts, now Trudeau’s principal secretary, when he worked for the Ontario Liberals.

“New policies always included something really controversial that was bound to really upset one of the other two parties,” wrote Artemiw. “This was usually something that the government never had any intention of actually passing. But it was a shiny object that would distract the opposition so that all their focus was on that which shone brightest.

“The Liberals would let the opposition stomp around about the great evil that was this shiny object for a week or two before pulling it. Grateful and exhausted, the opposition would let the rest of the bill slide through, claiming victory in defeat. Even if only one opposition party was happy, it was enough to say that compromise had been reached.”

It’s hard to argue with the Conservatives’ case that a referendum ought to be held on any electoral reform plan. When you’re tinkering with the mechanics of how our electoral system works, it’s only fitting to give citizens a direct say on the matter.

Liberals may say they have a mandate to scrap first-past-the-post, because they promised to do so during the last election, but that was one of several hundred campaign commitments, and not one that drew a lot of sustained public attention - in part because of the paucity of details of what the Liberals propose to put in our current system’s place.

The main argument against a referendum is that reform plans may very well fail to win sufficient support. Boosters of electoral reform may have no doubts in their minds about the righteousness of their cause, but many Canadian voters tend to approach plans to change our current electoral system with caution, if not suspicion. Electoral reform referendums have failed to win adequate public support in British Columbia, Ontario and P.E.I. in recent years. But “it’s a tough sell” is hardly a principled reason to avoid having a referendum, and the town hall meetings proposed by Liberals seem like a poor substitute.

The NDP’s Nathan Cullen has proposed an elegant solution: hold a referendum later, after voters have had a chance to give the new system a try. Of course, that still leaves the question of what electoral system the referendum should be held under?